Frankenstein in Modern English

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein has had a huge impact on the horror genre and our culture, but few have taken the trouble to read it. The first part of the novel is narrated by Robert Walton, an arctic explorer who encounters Victor Frankenstein in the far north. I’ve edited the text to make it more approachable by modern readers, removing some of the quaint literary devices (the early chapters are presented as a series of letters and journal entries) and modernizing the language.

This derivative work is under copyright. Please do not reproduce it without my permission.

Chapter 1 – St. Petersburgh

I am already far north of London, and as I walk in the streets of St. Petersburgh, I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves and fills me with delight. Do you understand this feeling? This breeze, which has traveled from the regions towards which I’m advancing, gives me a foretaste of those icy realms. Inspired by this wind of promise, my daydreams become more intense and vivid. I try in vain to be persuaded that the north pole is the seat of frost and desolation, but it always presents itself to my imagination as a region of beauty and delight.

There, the sun is always visible, its broad disk just skirting the horizon and diffusing a perpetual splendour. If previous navigators are to be believed, snow and frost are banished, and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land that surpasses in wonders and beauty every region discovered on the habitable globe today. Its products and features may be unprecedented, as the heavenly phenomena undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes. What might not be expected in a country of eternal light? I may discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle of the compass, or regulate a thousand celestial observations that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent forever.

I shall satisfy my passionate curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may even tread lands never before trodden by man. These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death and to induce me to commence this laborious voyage with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday friends, on an expedition of discovery up his native river. Even if all these conjectures are false, you cannot contest the priceless benefit which I shall confer on all mankind, for all generations to come, by discovering an arctic passage to those countries that at present require so many months to reach; or by discovering the secrets of magnetism, which, if even possible, can only be learned on an undertaking such as mine. These reflections have dispelled the agitation with which I began my journey, and I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates me to heaven.

Nothing contributes so much to mental tranquillity as much as a steady purpose, a point on which the mind may fix its intellectual eye. This expedition has been the great dream of my early years. I read with enthusiasm the accounts of the various voyages which have been made in hope of arriving at the North Pacific Ocean through the seas which surround the pole. A history of all of these voyages of discovery composed the whole of my good Uncle Thomas’ library. My education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading. I studied these volumes day and night, and my familiarity with them increased the regret that I felt, as a child, when I learned that my father’s dying injunction was to forbid my uncle to allow me to embark on a seafaring life.

Those early visions faded when I read, for the first time, poets whose unrestrained expression entranced my soul and lifted it to heaven. I became a poet and for a year lived in a paradise of my own creation. I imagined that I might obtain a place in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated. After my failure, how heavily I bore my disappointment. But just at that time I inherited my cousin’s fortune, and my thoughts returned to their earlier channel.

Six years have passed since I decided on my present undertaking. Even now, I remember the hour on which I dedicated myself to this great enterprise. I began by accustoming my body to hardship. I accompanied whalers on several expeditions to the North Sea. I voluntarily endured cold, famine, thirst, and lack of sleep. I often worked harder than the common sailors during the day and devoted my nights to the study of mathematics, medicine, and those branches of science from which a naval adventurer might derive the greatest practical advantage. Twice, I actually hired myself out as an under-mate on a Greenland whaler, and acquitted myself admirably. I must admit I felt a little proud when my captain offered me the second position on the vessel and asked me to remain with the greatest sincerity, so valuable did he consider my services.

Don’t I deserve to accomplish some great purpose? My life might have been passed in ease and luxury, but I preferred glory to every enticement that wealth placed in my path. Oh, if only some encouraging voice would answer yes! My courage and my resolution is firm, but my hopes fluctuate, and my spirits are often depressed. I am about to proceed on a long and difficult voyage, the emergencies of which will demand all my strength. I am required not only to raise the spirits of others, but sometimes to sustain my own, when theirs are failing.

This is the most favourable season for travelling in Russia. They fly quickly over the snow in their sledges. The motion is pleasant; in my opinion, far more agreeable than that of an English stagecoach. The cold is not excessive if you are wrapped in Nenet clothing, which I have already adopted. There is a great difference between walking the deck and remaining seated motionless for hours, without exercise to prevent the blood from actually freezing in your veins. I have no wish to lose my life on the road between St. Petersburgh and Arkhangelsk. I shall depart for the town of Arkhangelsk in two to three weeks, and I intend to hire a ship there, which can easily be done by paying the insurance for the owner, and to hire as many sailors as I think necessary among those who are accustomed to whaling. I do not intend to sail until June. When shall I return? Ah, how can I answer this question? If I succeed, many, many months, perhaps years, will pass. If I fail, it will be soon, or never.

Chapter 2 – Arkhangelsk

How slowly the time passes here, encompassed by frost and snow! Yet I’ve taken a second step towards my enterprise. I have hired a vessel and am occupied in collecting my sailors. Those who I have already engaged appear to be men who I can depend on, and certainly possess dauntless courage.

I have one desire which I’ve been unable to satisfy, and which I now feel as a most severe regret: I have no friends. When I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be no one to participate my joy. If I am assailed by disappointment, no one will try to sustain me in dejection. I’ll commit my thoughts to paper, it is true, but it is a poor medium for communicating feeling. I desire the company of a comrade who can sympathize with me, whose eyes will reply to mine. You may think me romantic, but I bitterly feel the desire for a friend. I have no one close to me, gentle yet courageous, with a large, cultivated mental capacity whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans. How such a friend would compensate for my faults! I am far too eager for action and too impatient with difficulties.

It is a still greater fault that I am self educated: For the first fourteen years of my life, I ran wild in the country and read nothing but Uncle Thomas’ books of voyages of exploration. I became acquainted with the celebrated poets of my own country, but it was only when it had ceased to be in my power to derive the most important benefits from them that I saw the necessity of becoming acquainted with more languages than my own. I am now twenty-eight, but I am truly more illiterate than many schoolboys of fifteen. It is true that I have thought more than most, and that my daydreams are more extensive and magnificent, but they need to be kept in check. I greatly need a friend who would have sense enough not to despise me as a romantic, with affection enough for me to try to regulate my mind.

Well, these are useless complaints. I shall certainly find no friend on the wide ocean, nor even here in Arkhangelsk, among the merchants and seamen. Yet some feelings, unrelated to the lowest part of human nature, beat even in these rugged hearts. My lieutenant, for instance, is a man of wonderful courage and enterprise. He madly desires glory and advancement in his profession. He is an Englishman, and in the midst of national and professional prejudices, unsoftened by cultivation, retains some of the noblest endowments of humanity. I first became acquainted with him on board a whaling vessel. Finding that he was unemployed once he reached this city, I easily engaged him to assist in my enterprise. The man is a person of an excellent disposition and is remarkable among the crew for his gentleness and the mildness of his discipline. This, added to his well known integrity and dauntless courage, made me greatly desire to hire him. My youth passed in solitude, and my best years spent under the gentle and feminine care of my sister Margaret, has so formed the groundwork of my character that I cannot overcome an intense distaste for the usual brutality exercised on board ships. I have never believed it to be necessary, and when I heard of a mariner equally noted for his kindliness of heart and the respect and obedience paid to him by his crew, I felt myself oddly fortunate in being able to secure his services. I heard of him first in a rather romantic manner, from a lady who owes him the happiness of her life. This, briefly, is his story:

Some years ago he loved a young Russian lady of moderate fortune, and, my lieutenant having amassed a considerable sum of money as a dowry, the father of the girl consented to the match. The lietenant saw his mistress once before the destined ceremony. She was bathed in tears, and throwing herself at his feet, entreated him to spare her, confessing that she loved another, but that he was poor, and that her father would never consent to their union. My generous friend reassured her, and, on being told the name of her lover, instantly abandoned his pursuit. He had already bought a farm with his money on which he had planned to pass the remainder of his life, but instead he gave it all to his rival, together with what was left of his money to purchase livestock, and then himself asked the young woman’s father to consent to her marriage with her lover. The old man refused, thinking himself honour bound to my friend. When he found the father inexorable, he left the country, and did not return until he heard that his former fiancee had been married according to her wishes. He is a noble fellow, but is wholly uneducated. He is as silent as a Turk, with a kind of ignorant carelessness which, while it renders his conduct the more astonishing, detracts from the interest and sympathy which he would otherwise command.

Do not suppose that because I complain a little or because I can conceive a consolation for my toils which I may never know that I am wavering in my resolution. That is as fixed as fate, and my voyage is only delayed until the weather permits me to embark. The winter has been dreadfully severe, but the spring promises to be good, and it is considered to have come remarkably early, so that perhaps I may sail sooner than I expected. I shall do nothing rashly; I am always prudent and considerate whenever the safety of others is committed to my care.

I cannot describe my sensations as the prospect of my undertaking nears. It is impossible to communicate the trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful, with which I am preparing to depart. I am going to unexplored regions, to “the land of mist and snow,” but I shall kill no albatross. I shall be safe and I shall not come back as worn and woeful as the “Ancient Mariner.” I will tell you a secret. I have often attributed my attachment to and my passionate enthusiasm for the dangerous mysteries of ocean to that very work by the most imaginative of modern poets. There is something at work in my soul that I do not understand. I am practical and industrious, a painstaking workman who executes with perseverance and effort, but I also have a love of the marvellous, a belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all my projects, which rushes me out of the common pathways of men, to the wild sea and unvisited regions I am about to explore.

Will I return, after traversing the vast oceans, by the most southern cape of Africa or America? I dare not expect such success, yet I cannot bear to look on the reverse of the picture. Remember me with affection, should you never hear from me again.

Chapter 3 – Trapped in Ice

We had departed safely and were well advanced on our voyage when we rendezvoused with an English merchantman on its homeward voyage from Arkhangelsk. Her captain considered himself more fortunate than I, who may not see my native land, perhaps, for many years. I am, however, in good spirits: my men are bold and apparently firm of purpose, nor do the floating sheets of ice that continually pass us, indicating the dangers of the region towards which we are advancing, appear to dismay them. We have already reached a very high latitude, but it is the height of summer, and although not so warm as in England, the southern gales, which blow us speedily towards those shores which I so strongly desire to attain, breathe a degree of renovating warmth which I had not expected.

In the firsts weeks of the journey, no incidents befell us that bear remarking on. One or two stiff gales and the springing of a leak are accidents which experienced navigators scarcely remember to record, and I would have been content if nothing worse happened to us during our voyage. For my own sake, I do not seek to rashly encounter danger. I am cool, persevering, and prudent, but success shall crown my endeavours. Why not? I have come this far, tracing a secure way over the pathless seas, the very stars themselves being witnesses and testimony to my triumph. Why not proceed over the untamed yet obedient element? What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?

Yet such a strange incident has occurred that I cannot forbear recording it. Last Monday (July 31st) we were nearly surrounded by ice, which closed in on the ship on all sides, scarcely leaving her the space in which she floated. Our situation was somewhat dangerous, especially as we were surrounded by very thick fog. We accordingly lay to, hoping that some change would take place in the atmosphere and weather.

At about two o’clock, the mist cleared away, and we beheld a vast and irregular plain of ice, stretched out in every direction, which seemed to have no end. Some of my comrades groaned, and my own mind began to grow watchful with anxious thoughts. Then a strange sight suddenly attracted our attention and diverted our concern from our own situation. We saw a low carriage, fixed on a sled and drawn by dogs, pass us, travelling northward, at a distance of half a mile. A being shaped like a man, but of gigantic stature, sat in the sled and guided the dogs. We watched the rapid progress of the traveller with our telescopes until he was lost among the distant inequalities of the ice. This excited our unqualified wonder. We were, we had believed, hundreds of miles from any land. This apparition seemed to denote that it was not actually as distant as we had supposed.

Shut in by the ice, it was impossible to follow his trail, though we had observed it with the greatest attention. About two hours later, we heard the ocean swell, and before night, the ice had broken up, freeing our ship. We lay to until the morning, fearing to encounter one of the large, loose masses that floated about after the breaking up of the ice in the dark. I profited from this time to rest for a few hours.

In the morning, as soon as it was light, I went upon deck and found all the sailors busy on one side of the vessel, apparently talking to someone in the water below. Looking over the side, I saw a sled like the one we had seen the day before. It had drifted towards us in the night on a large fragment of ice. Only one dog remained alive, but there was a man in the sled, and my sailors were persuading him to board our vessel. He was not, as the other traveller had seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but a European.

“Here is our captain. He will not let you perish on the open sea.” the master said when I appeared on deck.

On seeing me, the stranger addressed me in English, although with a foreign accent.

“Before I come on board your vessel,” he said, “will you have the kindness to inform me where you are bound?”

You can imagine my astonishment on hearing such a question from a man on the brink of destruction, to whom I would suppose that my vessel would have been a resource that he would not have exchanged for the most precious wealth the earth can afford.

“We are on a voyage of discovery towards the north pole,” I replied.

Upon hearing this, he appeared satisfied and consented to come on board. Good God! If you had seen the man who so capitulated for his safety, your surprise would have been boundless. His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I had never seen a man in so wretched a condition. We carried him into the cabin, but as soon as he had left the fresh air, he fainted. We brought him back to the deck and restored him to animation by rubbing him with brandy and forcing him to swallow a small quantity. As soon as he showed signs of life, we wrapped him up in blankets and placed him near the chimney of the kitchen stove. By slow degrees he recovered and ate a little soup, which restored him wonderfully.

Two days passed before he was able to speak, and I feared that his suffering had deprived him of reason. When he had recovered in some measure, I moved him to my own cabin and attended to him as much as my duties would permit. I have never known a more interesting person. His eyes have an expression of wildness, even madness, but there are moments when, if anyone performs an act of kindness for him or does him the most trifling service, he lights up with beaming benevolence and sweetness that I have never seen equalled. But he is generally melancholy and despairing, and sometimes he gnashes his teeth, as if impatient with the weight of troubles that oppresses him.

Once my guest had partly recovered, I had great trouble keeping the men away. They wanted to ask him a thousand questions; but I wouldn’t allow him to be tormented by their idle curiosity, when his body and mind’s restoration obviously depended upon complete rest. Once, however, the lieutenant asked him why he had come so far upon the ice in so strange a vehicle. His face instantly assumed an aspect of the deepest gloom.

“Seeking one who fled from me,” he replied.

“And did the man whom you pursued travel in the same fashion?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Then I guess we have seen him, for the day before we picked you up we saw some dogs drawing a sled, with a man in it, across the ice.”

This aroused the stranger’s attention, and he asked many questions concerning the route which the demon, as he called him, had pursued. Soon after, when he was alone with me, he spoke.

“No doubt I have excited your curiosity, as well as that of your crew, but you are too considerate to make enquiries.”

“You certainly have,” I said, “but it would be inhumane of me to trouble you with questions before you have fully recovered.”

“And yet you rescued me from a strange and perilous situation, and you have benevolently restored me to life,” he said.

Soon after this he enquired if I thought that when the ice had broken up, the other sled had been destroyed. I replied that I could not answer with any degree of certainty, for the ice had not broken until near midnight, and the traveller might have reached a place of safety before that time, but this I could not judge. From that time on, a new spirit of life has animated the decaying frame of the stranger. He is most eager to be upon deck to watch for the sled that we saw previously, but I have persuaded him to remain in the cabin, for he is far too weak to sustain the raw cold of the air. I have promised that someone will keep watch and notify him immediately if any new object should appear in sight.

The stranger has gradually improved in health, but is very quiet and appears uneasy when anyone except me enters his cabin. His manners are so conciliatory and gentle that the sailors are all interested in him, although they have had very little communication with him. For my own part, I have begun to think of him as a brother, and his constant and deep grief fills me with sympathy and compassion. He must have been a noble creature in his better days, being, even now after all he has been through, so attractive and amiable. I thought that I wouldn’t find a friend on the wide ocean, yet I have found a man who, before his spirit had been broken by misery, I would have been happy to have made the brother of my heart.

Chapter 4 – Unlooked for Friendship

My affection for my guest increases every day. He engenders both admiration and pity to an astonishing degree. How can I watch such a noble man destroyed by misery without feeling the deepest grief? He is so gentle, yet so wise. His mind is so cultivated, and when he speaks, although his words are chosen with careful art, they flow rapidly and with unparalleled eloquence. He has now mostly recovered from his illness and is continually on deck, apparently watching for the sled that preceded his own. Yet, although unhappy, he is not so utterly occupied by his own misery that he does not become deeply interested in the projects of others.

He has frequently conversed with me on my own, which I have disclosed to him openly. He listened attentively to all my arguments in favour of my eventual success and to the minute details of the measures I have taken to secure it. I was easily led by the sympathy which he showed to open my heart, and speak of the burning desire of my soul and how, with all the intensity that drove me, I would gladly sacrifice my fortune, my existence, and my every hope, to further my enterprise. One man’s life or death would be a small price to pay to acquire the knowledge which I seek, and the dominion I will acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race. As I spoke, a dark gloom spread over my listener’s face. At first, he tried to suppress his emotions. Then, he placed his hands over his eyes, and my voice quivered and failed me as I saw tears trickle from between his fingers. A groan burst from his heaving chest. I paused, and at length he spoke, in his broken accent.

“You poor, unhappy man!” he exclaimed. “Do you share my madness? Have you also drunk the intoxicating draught? Hear me; let me tell my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!”

His words strongly excited my curiosity. But the paroxysm of grief that seized the stranger overcame him in his weakened state, and many hours of rest and tranquil conversation were needed to restore his composure. Having overcome the violence of his feelings, he appeared to despise himself for being the slave of his passions. Quelling the dark tyranny of despair, he led me again to speak of myself. He asked me about my earlier years. My tale was quickly told, but it awakened various trains of reflection. I spoke of my desire to find a friend, of my thirst for a more intimate sympathy with a fellow mind than I had ever had, and expressed my conviction that a man without friends will have little happiness.

“I agree with you,” replied the stranger. “We are unfinished creatures, only half formed, unless one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves, as a friend ought to be, helps to perfect our weak and faulty natures. I once had a friend, the most noble of human creatures, and feel entitled, therefore, to judge regarding friendship. You have hope, and your life before you, and have no cause for despair. But I have lost everything, and cannot start over again.”

As he said this his face was filled with a calm, settled grief that touched my heart. He was silent and presently retired to his cabin.

Even broken in spirit as he is, no one could feel the beauties of nature more deeply than he does. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight to be seen in these wonderful regions seem to have the power of elevating his soul. Such a man lives a double existence: he may suffer misery and be overwhelmed by disappointments, yet when he has retreated into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit with a halo around him within whose circle no grief or foolishness goes.

Do you smile at the enthusiasm I express concerning this divine wanderer? You would not if you saw him. I have endeavoured to discover what quality he possesses that elevates him so immeasurably above every other person I have ever known. I believe it to be his intuitive discernment, a quick but never failing power of judgement, and the ability to penetrate to the causes of things, unequalled in clearness and precision. Add to this a facility of expression and a voice whose varied intonations are like soul subduing music.

“As you can clearly see, Captain Walton, I have suffered great and unparalleled misfortunes,” said the stranger. “I had determined that the memory of these evils should die with me, but you have convinced me to change my mind. You seek knowledge and wisdom, as I once did, but I truly hope that the gratification of your wishes will not be a serpent to bite you, as mine has been. I do not know whether telling you of my disaster will be useful to you. Yet, since you are pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine that you will deduce an apt moral from my tale, one that may direct you if you succeed in your undertaking and console you in case of failure. Prepare to hear of events which anyone would call incredible. If we were among the tamer scenes of nature, I fear you wouldn’t belief, and perhaps even ridicule me. But many things appear possible in these wild and mysterious regions which would provoke the laughter of those unacquainted with the ever varied powers of nature. As well, my tale conveys by its own consistency evidence of the truth of the events of which it is composed.”

You may easily imagine that I very gratiful for his offer to tell his story, yet I could not bear that he would renew his grief by telling me of his misfortunes. I felt the greatest eagerness to hear the tale, partly from curiosity and partly from a strong desire to improve his fate if it were in my power. I expressed these feelings in my answer.

“I thank you, for your sympathy,” he replied, “but it is useless; my fate is almost complete. I wait for only one event, and then I will die in peace. I understand your feeling,” he continued, perceiving that I wished to interrupt him, “but you are mistaken, my friend, if you will allow me to call you that. Nothing can alter my destiny. Listen to my story, and you will see how irrevocably it is determined.”

He told me that he would begin his narrative the next day when I was at leisure. I thanked him warmly. I have resolved every night, when I am not out of nescessity occupied by my duties, to record, as nearly as possible in his own words, what he has related during the day. If I should be busy, I will at least make notes. This manuscript will doubtless afford you the greatest pleasure, but to me, who knows him, and hears it from his own lips–with what interest and sympathy I will read it on some day in future! Even now, as I commence writing, his full-toned voice swells in my ears. His lustrous eyes dwell on me with all their melancholy sweetness. I see his thin hand raised in animation, while the features of his face are irradiated by the soul within him.

His story must be strange and harrowing. A frightful the storm it must have been to embraced so gallant a vessel on its course and wrecked it so!

The novel turns to Frankenstein’s backstory next. If you enjoyed this excerpt, please leave a like or a comment. When I’ve finished further sections, I’ll publish them here, and may create a low cost version for Kindle in future.

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